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January 20, 2019

The Mara horrors you'd rather not watch

BLOOD CHILLING: Hyenas attack a wildebeest.
BLOOD CHILLING: Hyenas attack a wildebeest.

The Great Wildebeest Migration was declared the Seventh Wonder of the World. During this season, unfortunate incidents happen in the Masai Mara Game Reserve and only a few mortals have the courage to watch. Wildebeests also known as gnus from Serengeti National Park cross to Mara in search of pastureland, and as they cross the Mara River they are preyed on by crocodiles. One of the highlights of this major spectacle is the struggle by wildebeests to make it alive to the other side. The lucky ones that escape the jaws of the crocodiles have nothing to celebrate as lions, which are in large densities in the game reserve, lie in wait for them.

During migration, predators are at their best and scavengers do not eat their leftovers as they are used to. They attack their prey instead of sitting around waiting for the lions and cheetahs to make the kill. Why would they with all the badly wounded wildebeests lying around helplessly? This is how the competition between predators and scavengers begin.

With the abundance of wildebeests during migration, one may be tempted to think the likes of hyenas have it easy by waiting for the lions to make easy kills and eat the carcasses' remains. One may also think the hyenas wait at the crossing points for the badly wounded wildebeests that were lucky to wriggle out of the crocodile’s jaws and eat them to end their miseries. It is not the case this time round.

The hyenas are out to prove their prowess in hunting. They have 'pitched tents' in Mara and are attacking their unlucky victims in the most gruesome ways that only a few can bear the sight.

I was down in the southern Mara where the migrating animals are concentrated. For several years now, the migrating wildebeests have been using the Sand River mountain pass as their exclusive entry point, and the Siria escarpment as their exit point. This means the main concentration areas during the great migration is Sand River, Keekorok, the larger fig tree area which includes, Rekero, Ashnil, and parts of Olkiombo. As they advance towards Musiara area, their patience seem to have ran out and they rush towards the river to cross over to the Serena area.

They stay there for a while and graze slowly along the edges of the Oloololo hills as they head back to Serengeti. In the past, the wildebeests would filter through the plains and go as far as the Loita plains and Maji moto area. Most of the dispersal areas have been turned into private sanctuaries that are still in their formative years. The so-called conservancies can longer offer proper range management that can maintain the wildlife dispersal systems as has always been the case.

Other areas in the northern wildlife corridors, which served as migration routes in the past have become commercial wheat farming areas. This means the migrating wildebeests have reduced their distance and increased their concentration on a relatively small area. Due to lack of adequate pastureland, wildebeest have devised a strategy to cope with this challenge. They come early and leave early, or they come in twice, within a specific period. One group arrives late June through the Sand River and leaves in September through Oloololo hills. Another group comes in mid-September through the border post near Serena Lodge, crosses the river and stays at the Musiara swamp until November when they leave using the route on the Oloololo hills. This means the Ashnil and Serena areas are the best areas from where to watch the migration.

I was at the Ashnil Mara when I watched, for the very first time, a hyena attack its prey. Much as I respect and love nature, I do not approve the method used by hyenas to kill a helpless animal. It is the simplicity of the kill that makes the process unfathomable. Hyenas are long distance runners. They can maintain a constant speed for a very long time.

Hyenas make a random choice of their prey from a group of wildebeests, start running after it until the wildebeest becomes exhausted. When the poor gnu cannot run any more, the hyena, whether individually or in a group, tears the animal into pieces and eats it while it is still warm. The hyenas do not quickly mutilate their kill like the wild dogs do. They take their time and cut off chunks of muscles from the limbs of their victims while it is still standing. When they eat the limbs to the bones, the poor animal falls down, and hyenas continue to rip its muscles out as it writhes in pain. Unmoved by the crying of the animal, the hyenas rip out the stomach, and proceed to remove its lungs andheart.

The day you will see a hyena attacking its prey, and you know you are squeamish, keep driving. Don’t wait for the kill.

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